What one professor learned by going undercover as a student

Outside of class, students may be dealing with issues beyond their control

A professor has more empathy for his students after going undercover as one, Katherine Mangan reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Mike Cross taught chemistry at Northern Essex Community College for six years before deciding that he wanted to better understand student life—in fact, he wanted to be fully immersed in the experience. So instead of just enrolling in a few courses, Cross pursued an associate degree in liberal arts while teaching full time.

Cross spoke to the Chronicle of Higher Education about what he learned as an undercover student and how the experience made him a better professor:

Students may skip class to save face

Cross had an 8:00 a.m. class on his first day as an undercover student. But as he ran late for class after completing an errand, Cross considered skipping class altogether. He realized that his students who occasionally skip class may feel embarrassed about coming in late and would rather just miss the whole class to avoid being humiliated.

Schoolwork is only one aspect of a student's life

Cross came to understand just how many obligations his students juggle when he had to postpone his own homework to help his children with theirs. Students who don't complete their homework aren't necessarily lazy, he learned; they may just be overwhelmed with other responsibilities.

Related: Why first-generation students don't go to their advisors—and how to get them there

"The vast majority [of students] aren't deciding between watching a Game of Thrones marathon and turning in a research paper," Cross says. "More likely, they're choosing whether to take their mom to a doctor's appointment, go to a kid's play, or do this paper. Sometimes schoolwork gets the short end of the stick."

Students need clear directions

Cross praised his English teacher for providing clear directions for posting on the class discussion board, as opposed to simply telling students to "actively participate" in discussions. He found how frustrating it can be when professors don't relay important information, like when an assignment is due.

Cross also has become more understanding about technical difficulties that trip up students, such as when Blackboard and email fail to cooperate.

The little things matter to students

Cross found that even the smallest details are important to students. For example, one class had uncomfortable chairs, which made Cross realize that students who fidget may be too distracted to pay attention. Other students have difficulty seeing the white board—a fact Cross didn't fully grasp until he went undercover. Now Cross tests the chairs and evaluates the view from the back when he teaches in a new room (Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/30). 

Also see: Scaling support for tomorrow's students

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